The Man that Got Away – Jeff Buckley was determined not to follow in the footsteps of his father, tragic cult artist Tim Buckley. But fate had other ideas.

By David Peschek

A SMALL BOY IS WATCHING HIS FATHER. ALL CHILDREN WATCH THEIR parents. But this eight-year-old boy hasn't seen his father since he was a baby, and has only a blurred, dreamlike memory of him. And now his father is on a stage in front of him, singing. The boy, known as Scott, is with his mother, Mary. It is 1975, and the venue is The Golden Bear, a small folk club in Huntington Beach, LA. The boy's father is musician Tim Buckley, whose work journeys far beyond the boundaries of folk and who has recently released an album of which he is not as proud as he might be: Look At The Fool.  

"I think the band came on and started cookin' first," remembers Mary, "yeah, and here's little Scotty, he's got blond hair down to here, he's bouncing in his seat, he's chair-dancing to his dad's music, and Tim's wailing, and I saw - or I imagine I saw, I don't know which - his eyes were closed, and he'd open them a little bit to see Scotty in the second row, and Scotty was grooving. I was watching the two of them and I thought, This is really going to be amazing.

“At the end of the first set I said, Do you wanna go backstage and see [Tim], and Scott's like, 'Yeah!' So with him clutching my skirt we made our way back to the dressing room. There were a lot of people milling around and I didn't see Tim right away. [Then] this voice called, 'Jeff!' It was the first time anyone had ever called him Jeff. And he leapt at the sound of his father's voice, across the room into his arms, and he was sitting on his lap and chattering a mile a minute. He said things like, 'My dog's name is King, he's white,' and he was telling [Tim] everything he could think about himself to tell his father. He was sitting on his dad's lap facing [Tim] and I could see Tim's face over Jeff's shoulder and tears were just running down his face. So I thought, I'll just let this be, so I went back to the audience.

“After a few minutes [Tim's wife] Judy came holding little Jeff 's hand and his feet were not touching the floor, sparks were coming out of his eyes, and I could see her steel herself a little bit and she said, 'Do you think we could take him us?' Now, God was in my head, I'm telling you; Mary Guibert would not have said yes. I looked at Scotty, and his eyes looked at me like, 'Please don't say no, Mommy.' It was the Friday night before Easter vacation so there was no school,' no reason to say no. He stayed 'til Thursday. They sent him home on the bus with a little matchbook with his daddy's telephone number written in it." Two months later Tim Buckley, who has been trying to quit heroin, dies of an overdose.

Almost two decades on, the boy - who changed his name shortly after his father's death - is a young man playing his first out-of-town shows since his solo gigs in the tiny East Village club Sin-e in New York have made him a hot property. But in Vancouver, Seattle, places that aren't Sin-e, audiences don't know quite what to make of this strange new performer, whose set comprises wild vocal peregrinations, Nina Simone and Judy Garland songs, a handful of his own compositions and a good deal of crazy, between-song banter.

"What's wrong with these people?" he asks his manager, Dave Lory, despondently. "It's not the people," Lory replies. "Just play your music. Don't talk between songs. You're gonna learn something out here no one can teach you. It's called attitude." "What's attitude?" Jeff asks. "You'll know when you have it," says Lory.

Two and a half years later, Jeff Buckley is playing two sold-out nights at the Paris Olympia. In the encore, the crowd sings Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah for him, and during an extended version of Big Star's Kanga Roo he launches himself into the audience, body-surfing on their outstretched hands, playing his guitar as they try to tear off his clothes. Off-stage, bathed in sweat, he bounds down the stairs to Lory.

“Attitude?!" he enquires grinning.

Artists who die young exert a peculiar fascination: Nick Drake, Sylvia Plath, Kurt Cobain – we pore over their work, their legacy, with near-prurient meticulousness. But even Nick Drake made three albums in his brief lifetime. Cobain managed four. Plath left a significant number of poems. Jeff Buckley drowned accidentally, leaving only one completed album and another barely started. And however much it might seem otherwise, it was not the weight of history that pulled him under, but the treacherous currents of the Mississippi.

After Jeff's death, his mother Mary Guibert - who, as next of kin, had inherited his estate - began working with his managers Dave Lory and George Stein, and the A&R department at Columbia Records. Mary, and Jeff's band, were worried that the release of Sketches… - initially intended to comprise only the sessions recorded with producer Tom Verlaine, which Jeff had subsequently scrapped - was being rushed. You wonder how anyone who'd been close to Jeff could decide what to do next in the fraught summer of 1997. Mary’s involvement was greeted with uncertainty. Rumours abounded that she and Jeff had not been on speaking terms. (Mary and Jeff had argued about a salacious web- posting Courtney Love had made concerning her son; they remained distant for a while, and then were reconciled.) In an atmosphere of profound distrust, the situation was bound to ignite. Mary fired the management and Jeff's A&R man. Litigation and counter-litigation followed.

Guitarist Michael Tighe feels the division between Guibert and Lory was inevitable. "There's always panic and violence and people slandering each other around someone's death," he says. "People were trying to resolve their relationships with Jeff in different ways. I think some people thought they were protecting Jeff, 'cos they met Jeff when he was coming into himself as his own person and part of that is separating yourself from your home and your family. But that's what was illuminated when he died: they were holding on to that relationship they had with him, when you have to reinvent it."

Three years after her son's death, Mary Guibert still inspires dislike and mistrust in an array of people of varying closeness to the Buckley circus. She is, variously, "a failed actress" or (and this with bitter, pointed irony) "a great actress". "The business of her living though Jeff is really eerie," comments a source in New York, "like a Flannery O'Connor story." Perhaps most damningly, another New York source calls her "a real rock star. You'll get a lot of stuff from her," I'm told, "but none of it will be about her son."

In fact, if everything I'm told about her before we meet were to be true, she would have to be a monster. And the truth is this: she isn't.

MARY GUIBERT LIVES IN A MODEST BUT WELL-SITUated apartment in Silverlake, a quasi-bohemian suburb of East LA. When I step out of the lift on her floor, the first thing I hear is Jeff, wailing down the hall. Two Jeffs stand guard over her living room - one distracted, preoccupied, the other staring straight ahead; a huge print of the photo used for the cover of Sketches ... On the opposite wall is a small shrine arranged around a shot of Jeff and step-brother Corey Moorehead towering over their diminutive mother. Here too, in Mary's apartment, are Jeff's CDs; going' through them seems like trespassing, but too tempting to pass up. ("There's none of his jazz stuff, that had gone, no Nina Simone, no Duke Ellington, no Ella, no Miles..." Mary mutters darkly.) It's a fair picture of catholic taste: there are seven by The Jesus Lizard, five apiece from Bowie and The Cocteau Twins, Jerry Lewis Just Sings next to Lil' Kim, Esquivel, The Last Poets, Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares, Oscar Brown Jr's Sin And Soul next to Bow Wow Wow. And there are boxes and boxes of tapes, many unmarked, on which Jeff himself is still singing.

"I get letters from mothers who've lost their sons," Mary says haltingly, "or their children, or someone they love very much, and when I read their letters I'm totally, totally moved and blessed; when their child died there were no 87 hours of recordings of their voice, even though he might be singing the same song over and over again... in some cases I just sit and listen to the in-between parts."

When I first ask about Tim Buckley, she laughs as if recalling a brief but irrevocable indiscretion. They were high school sweethearts, he a senior, she a junior, at Loara High School, Anaheim, CA, in 1964. She was musical, and acted, and was "a goody-two-shoes. I wore the kind of clothes my mother bought for me. Tim was this really interesting-looking senior who didn't fit in with the rest of the people either, but his best friend was the student body president, this brilliant guy Larry Beckett. I noticed them... but I was too busy [with] all my little activities. I was all set to be a musician and an actress and a dancer, all those things..."

But he was beautiful... "He was absolutely beautiful. This burr of curly black-brown hair and these long curly lashes that reached all the way up to his eyebrows and this... very sensitive mouth, and just... this way of looking at me. I'd be walking past him and he'd be sitting with his back to the wall. He'd stick both legs out so I'd have to step over him. He gave me a look like he knew what I looked like naked. That was the way it started, this little love affair. He'd write me these erotic poems, and at 16 that was so grown up and so awakening, it was amazing."

Tim started dating Mary, keeping her out past midnight. "You can't leave a Bob Dylan concert 'cos your date had to be home at 11. That's ridiculous. So after the Bob Dylan concert at the Hollywood Bowl where he plugged in, I got home and got a beating. Tim told me later that he'd parked his car down the street and ran back and climbed up the bushes outside my bedroom window and watched my father beat me. We were 16 and 17, and that just drove us together. We were Romeo and Juliet, and they were all wrong and we knew what love was all about. We married in December of my junior year."

If it hadn't been for the fact that it was 1966 and the pill wasn't all that readily available, Mary might have gone on to pursue her acting career, her music career, whatever. But at 17 and a half Mary found herself pregnant and Tim found himself newly signed to a recording contract with Elektra. He was about to go on tour and suddenly Mary wasn't very hip. She was a pregnant wife of an 18-year-old guy: “A real albatross around his neck.”

Mary was five and a half months pregnant when Tim came back to Los Angeles. She sent him a cassette through his manager. "I said, I just wanted to say this so you can hear my voice. I know about your girlfriend and I figured that it's over and I'm really sorry that this is turning out this way but I'm gonna set you free, I just can't stand to be your enemy. I almost expected to hear from him after the baby was born, he knew, but... that was just sorta... a lost connection."

A year later, when Tim was living out in Venice Beach, Mary visited him with an eight-month-old little Jeff. She visited him three times in Jeff's first year, hoping that Tim would want to stay in touch with his son. Later on in his life Jeff would tell his mother about a recurring dream which bothered him. He's on the beach, sitting on his father's shoulders, seeing Mary on a blanket. "I told him, That's not a dream, that really happened. I don't ever remember telling him. It must have been one of his earliest memories. There was someone who told me later, in the last two or three years, that Tim actually walked with [Jeff] to her house down the street; she saw Jeff when he was just a little baby asleep in his arms. So I know at least [Tim] was proud, he wanted to show her his baby boy. Then he moved and left no forwarding address and I was 19 years old. If he ripped my heart out before, this time he spat in the hole.

"I didn't make an effort to contact him again, although we continued to get child support cheques."

MICHAEL TIGHE MET JEFF BUCKLEY WHEN HE FIRST arrived in New York at the start of the '90s. "He was so knowledgeable. I think the first person we listened to together was Son House. At the time I was mainly just listening to soul and blues. That was the first language we shared. Then he opened me up to countless other bands. I remember thinking there was some- thing superhuman to it, the way he could process all this information and extract the strength, the core, and what was beautiful about these songs. From being around him I learned to get closer to that, the heart of music."

More than anything, this is what Mystery White Boy - the new live album compiled by Michael and Mary - has to say. It's not always easy listening; in many ways, like Sketches…, it's an extremely sophisticated record that makes huge demands of the listener. If you love the layered swirl of Grace, you will almost certainly find it hard work. Often, Jeff seems to be flailing against the songs, daring them to break open and release some still-hidden truths. These are, largely, performances that value passion over craft and they make for exhausting listening.

Michael Tighe: "I do feel that because of the brevity of our time together as a band, there's not that much of what our essence was recorded, apart from these live shows. We listened to all of them and that was like... dragging pianos out of your heart."

Jeff didn't actually want these shows recorded, did he?

"No. None of us did. But the more and more I heard how incredible some of the performances were, I knew we were doing it for the right reasons. There were times when [his performance] was perfect, and then there are songs with this sense of him giving so much, unbridled, and it's not perfect, it's raw. You have to experience what actually happened to Jeff, it's not just like listening to a record."

Tucked away amid the blistering squall of Mystery White Boy is the song that perhaps has most to say about this driven, relentless young man. It's a solo cover of Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin's The Man That Got Away, written originally for George Cukor's 1954 remake of A Star Is Born, and sung by Judy Garland. There are two versions of the song that have parallel lives. It was also released as a single by Frank Sinatra in 1954, retitled The Gal That Got Away; Ira Gershwin had rewritten the lyric at Frank's request. Jeff almost certainly learnt the song from the recording of Garland's 1961 performance at Carnegie Hall; it's telling that he chose not to switch the gender of the lyric.

There's a famous bootleg of Jeff's appearance at Elvis Costello's Meltdown Festival where he says. "You know, I love these women's songs, I really love them. Men are fuck-ups, and the only good thing about that is that so many wonderful torch songs have been written about what men have done to women, and I love to sing them." Co-manager George Stein recalls Jeff being asked to describe himself as a performer. Jeff thought for a long time and finally replied, "A chanteuse."

THE GRUELLING TOUR SCHEDULE THAT FOLLOWED the release of Grace - for the last three years of his life, Jeff spent most of his time on the road - offered him a strong sense of family. He spent downtime in Seattle with powerhouse soundman Mark Naficy, a genial, self-effacing man who offered warm, uncomplicated company. Naficy had joined the crew from tours with Soundgarden and Alice In Chains, cut his wage in half and rebuilt the PA from scratch, such was his love of the music. Much of his time is now taken up with providing sound systems for raves. He rarely goes out on the road. "It's hard," he says, "to find something that's gonna equal that experience."

In the summer of 1994, a more fateful meeting occurred. David Shouse was singer with The Grifters, a Memphis band touring with The Dambuilders. At a show in Iowa City, remembers Shouse, "We were told we would be opening for Tim Buckley's son, and we were like, 'Huh?' We didn't know anything about this guy and we were all just absolutely floored. We all got turned on to each other that night and that began the friendship that went on through.”

For Jeff, who was just beginning to explore the musical possibilities a band could offer, it was an education. The Dambuilders were “straight-ahead pop/rock”. (Violinist Joan Wasser became Jeff's girlfriend, and later played with Shouse in Those Bastard Souls; currently she and Michael Tighe play together in Black Beetle.) The Grifters "rep- resented for him that place a part of him wanted to go after, that more chaotic, uninhibited place. It's four guys who go, 'OK, there are no rules, we can just have a good time.' Some nights when things click you've got four different people coming from four different directions. It was almost like having to reach your hand through a barbwire fence to grab a melody.

"I look back on my relationship with Jeff, particularly after he came to Memphis and the amount of time we spent together, not like, Oh, we were music buddies... we were friends. I put pressure on Jeff to come down [to Memphis] because I started to realise he wanted a rougher sound than Grace. This was in late '96. He asked where we made our records and I said, There's this amazing studio [Easley Studios] where you can just do anything you want; he paid a visit and liked what he saw. Doug Easley and his people are very mellow - very encouraging of musicians who take chances and try weird stuff." It was at Easley in Memphis that Jeff began recording the follow-up to Grace, with Tom Verlaine at the helm, and Columbia and his management snapping at his heels.

David Shouse: "I was on tour when they got there, but it must have been January '97. When we got back, things had kind of hit the wall. Things weren't really jiving with Tom - the atmosphere was pretty bad - and I don't think Jeff was really happy with the songs. Our conversations were along the lines of, Fuck the label, you know? He was unhappy with that side of things, but I think he felt he needed to get inside those songs more, that's why he decided to hole up in the house here, and the reason everyone was coming to town when he drowned was because he called and said, 'I'm ready. Things sound good.' He was ready to go."

ON JULY 14,1968, TIM BUCKLEY RECORDED THE FATHER Song at TTG Studios, Hollywood. Written for Hal 'Jonathan Livingston Seagull' Bartlett's film Changes, it remained unreleased until its inclusion on the recent Rhino Handmade compilation Works In Progress. It's dangerous to presume it is simply autobiographical, but the lines carry an inescapable resonance: "I know I'll never be the man you want me to be/I feel so hungry, so empty inside/So tired of trying but I'm too young to hide/I didn't mean to smile and turn your love to fire/Oh tell me, father, is there shame in your heart for me?"

Mary Guibert has never heard it. She is speechless for a moment when I tell her about it. "Really? Oh my gosh. I feel the same way about that as I do about Dream Letter. When I heard that I thought, That's a lovely thought, Tim, I'm sure that's the way you feel in your heart, why didn't that motivate you into action, just for that little boy? Not for me.

"One of the comforts I had in the hours after the realisation that we weren't going to find Jeff was that he must have immediately gone into the arms of his father. I know that... Do I see an irony? That it was happening again? For me it wasn't an 'again' thing. When Jeff had his 29th birthday, he said, 'At least now I have outlived my dad.' Someone sent him his father's death certificate and he wrote on the outside of the envelope [mock-dramatic voice] 'Death certificates -who will be next?' My son had come up with such a different kind of attitude and different kind of life; he was a young man who was much more self-possessed than Tim. Tim didn't have the emotional support Jeff had growing up. They were different, and their deaths were very different."

Beyond the simple tragedy of a young man who drowned, there is a more complex one: some of those who cared most for Jeff are unable to speak to each other. And this was a man whose last human exchange was an act of love. He had been reassuring Keith Foti about his musical ability and prospects. Before wading into the river, Jeff kissed his friend full on the mouth. At this moment, Michael Tighe was coming into Memphis to start rehearsals for the second album. "[The band] arrived as he was dying. We arrived at the house and he wasn't there. The objects there were very expressive of him, like statements. The way he had his clothes out, his food with a fork through it, I just felt his presence. The place was vibrating with his essence. This all went through me real quick then five minutes later the phone rang, [it was Keith] Foti who said ‘Jeff went under the water and hasn't come up,’ so we went down to the river, Parker [Kindred, drummer], Mick [Grondahl], Gene [Bowen, tour manager].

"I'm very grateful that I was so close to him when he did die, and that I did get to feel his presence so much. It was also very generous, the way he died. He gave me a lot of his touch. It was completely confusing, but I felt his love there, enough that it made me realise that death isn't an end, which I'd always thought. When you have that knowledge bestowed on you, that's such a gift. That's like the only thing I'm sure of I had this experience where his breath came into me and it just kept coming and I never had anything like that before. There in his attic. So that's my... what do you call that? I talk about it all the time, but it's something that feels... like my fact about God."

Michael pauses. "He moved really fast, like he was experiencing life at a very high speed and just really playful, like a kid. But with some very strong secret and internal language that he had with himself. There was one area that was really intangible. You could look in his eyes sometimes and know he was reverberating inside of himself, that he had these emotions and ideas that probably he would never tell anybody."

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